Opinion Columns & Blogs

John Richard Schrock: 2014 a discouraging year for K-12 education

2014 was a discouraging year for K-12 education in Kansas. Here is a look back:

▪  Kansas became the second state to take away tenure from K-12 teachers. Previously, teachers had to work three years at a school to prove their effectiveness. During this probationary time, they could be let go without explanation. After tenure, they could only be dismissed for cause. Kansas teachers lost state-guaranteed due process in April when this action was tacked to a huge funding bill.

▪  Kansas K-12 teacher retirements and vacancies accelerated as teachers who held off retirement during the 2008 recession finally left the classroom.

▪  The numbers of new student teachers graduating from teacher education programs declined nationwide as well as in Kansas. New secondary science teaching licenses in Kansas dropped to an all-time low.

▪  In response to a lack of teachers in some areas, the Legislature passed a measure allowing a person who “has obtained at least a bachelor’s degree in the subject matter area of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, finance or accounting; has at least five years of work experience in such subject matter area; and has secured a commitment from the board of education of a school district to be hired as a teacher to teach in such subject matter area.” This act ignores any need for training in teaching and admits persons into the classroom without any gatekeeping.

▪  Kansas obtained federal approval to not release test results for the 2013-14 year. Results became invalid because of technical problems and cyberattacks that targeted the state’s computer-based assessment system.

▪  Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker resigned effective May 14. Randy Watson, superintendent of the McPherson school district, was chosen by the Kansas State Board of Education to be the new commissioner. He had been one of the first to seek a federal waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, allowing McPherson schools to use other testing methods rather than NCLB-driven, state-mandated assessments.

▪  Elections changed little in the political makeup of the state board. Most races were determined in the primary.

▪  Severe tax cuts by Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature produced a $279 million revenue shortfall this fiscal year. To help cover this shortfall, Brownback is proposing a one-time “transfer” of funds from the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System and raiding funds from the Kansas Department of Transportation. But many legislators favor even more tax cuts. With K-12 education consuming half of every Kansas tax dollar, and all other state agencies cut to the bone, K-12 school funding reductions remain possible.

▪  The Kansas Supreme Court ruled that cuts made because of the 2008 recession left unconstitutional gaps in funding between poor and rich school districts. This forced legislators to increase aid to poor districts by $129 million for the 2014-15 school year. While this addressed the “equity” part of the lawsuit, it did not address the larger “adequate funding” issue. The Supreme Court ordered the lower court judges to consider whether the state’s total spending on schools is adequate. If they order the state to restore the 2008 budget, Kansas will have to raise annual school funds by about $450 million. If the courts agree with the school districts’ lawsuit, K-12 school funding would have to increase by more than $1 billion.

It all makes you wonder where our state anthem came up with the line, “where seldom is heard a discouraging word.”

John Richard Schrock of Emporia trains biology teachers.